"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Does the shoe fit?

Before you read today's post, go to Murderati and read Toni McGee Causey's post, about trying to do things in our lives that don't fit our fundamental natures. By the way, if you write, and especially if you write mysteries, you should be tuning into the Murderati blog every day. It's a great group of authors with interesting things to say.

Today, Toni is describing a meeting with her friend who has become a vegan and looks great; Toni wonders if it's just that easy, but in the end decides it's not who she is. Being a vegan doesn't "fit" her.

This started me thinking about characters, on the stage, screen and page, and how we complain when they are not real, not fully dimensional human beings. In other words, they do/say things that don't "fit" them. I struggle in my own writing, between trying to make a character do and say the things I need for the plot and keeping them true to the personality I've given them. I'm afraid, if I take a misstep, readers will call me on it. Mean readers.

This is possibly why Peri is 50 years old and not 30. In my youth, I tried on a lot of things that didn't fit me - scuba diving, skiing, marriages to the wrong men. By my late forties, I was finally wise enough to decline suggestions to go skydiving and river rafting, because I knew what I liked, and neither tossing myself from an airplane nor being tossed into white water did it for me. At 50, Peri knows what fits her. She likes running and old movies and her independence… although life does intervene to make her question her choices.

By juxtaposition, I'd like you to take a look at a book I just read, The Belly Dancer by DeAnna Cameron. I don't normally read romances, but not only is DeAnna a friend of mine, the cover and jacket blurb was so intriguing that I had to have a copy. Her protagonist is a young girl, a new wife, who is desperate to join the elite Victorian society of Chicago. But what she thinks she wants doesn't fit her. I liked the story, even when I wanted to shake Dora by the shoulders and tell her to stay away from those awful society women. The story rings true, even while the character is being false (to herself). BTW, good job, DeAnna!

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Do you prefer a main character who is still trying to figure out what they want in life and is tossed about by the storyline, or do you want your protagonist to be the stable one in the story, the person you can count on when everything else seems to be falling apart?

Perhaps some of you can even extend this discussion on your own blogs… we'll make a chain post!


Patricia Stoltey said...

If the protagonist isn't a bit conflicted about something, can he/she be real? A main character who's too solidly stable might not be so interesting (although I am a bit tired of the recovering alcoholic cop or P.I.).

My main characters are 60 and above, but they still have their challenges (even the 80-year-olds), and they aren't above pulling stupid stunts when they should know better.

As far as doing things that don't fit our fundamental natures, getting out in public and promoting my books is so against my nature it boggles my mind that I actually do it.

Gayle Carline said...

Patricia - I agree with you about the alkie cop. I'm also growing weary with protags who have lost their loved one(s) and have ongoing grief issues.

I guess I'm not talking so much about internal conflicts - you're right, if the main character is always sure of themselves and always right, they better have an interesting personality or we lose their humanity.

I'm talking more about the character who spends the entire story trying to get A, when even we can see that B is better for them. As opposed to the character who knows they want B, spends the story chasing B, and has to overcome obstacles getting to B.

For example, Meg Ryan spends all of "French Kiss" trying to get Timothy Hutton back, when really she needs Kevin Kline. On the other hand, Indiana Jones is always about the goal - he wants the Ark at the start, and still wants it at the end (altho he'd like to survive the ordeal, too).

N A Sharpe said...

I think as the characters grow through the story - and I believe they all must in some form - we learn the little nuances of their personality. Everyone has them, no matter how sure of themselves they are. It's one of the factors in keeping the characters believable.

It's very true, though, that as writers we sometimes try to make our characters do something in the story that fits along the storyline but doesn't "fit" the character at that point of their being. The characters are generally quick to tell us, it doesn't flow right for them and if we try to make it stick...you're right, the readers will certainly call us on it, and we lose credibility for trying to force a situation.

Good post!

Nancy, from Realms of Thought…

dino martin peters said...

Hey pallie, I think your idears applies to our Dino....while you never quite know what Dino will do next....what he does is always consistent with his persona of likes total cool...that's why my pal Bennie and I cans both ask "What Would Dino Do?" and then proceeds to do it in the coolest way Dinopossible....btw, when you sees the Ben, please greet him warmly for me!

Nick Valentino said...

The Protagonist can't be perfect. I prefer them to be like everyone else in the world... Figuring life out one conflict at a time.

The squeaky clean protagonist really doesn't work. I think of every character Steven Segal plays. hahaha!


DeAnna Cameron said...

What a thought-provoking post, Gayle! For me, having a main character who gets what she needs in the end, instead of what she wants, is one way to go -- but not the only way.

If the story is important for the main character to change somehow -- but that can happen in a number of ways. She might let go of a long-held grudge, work through some negative feelings, or just learn something new about life that she didn't know before.

For a mystery, where the plot is more central to the story, I think the rules are different (though I admit my familiarity with series mysteries is limited to about 11 of the Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books). You need to have the main character act as a fairly consistent force in each story for the reader to reconnect each time. In Peters' series, Amelia grew into her brassy & sassy self in the first book, but she hasn't changed much -- if any -- in the subsequent books. What's more important is the trouble she gets into, and the twists and turns of the plot.

That's what I'm enjoying most about FREEZER BURN, though I admit, I do love Peri's brassy & sassy personality, too :-)

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